Austria: Unification Church recognized as Confessional Community
VIENNA, 20.06.2015 (FOREF) – The Austrian branch of the Unification Church (UC) has officially been registered by the Office of Religious Affairs (Kultusamt) on June 15, 2015. About 40 years after the administrative interdiction of the community in Austria its members welcome the step by the federal government to grant the legal status of a „confessional community“.
With its newly acquired legal personality the UC has been granted “state recognition without privileges”. The church is currently the eighth confessional community that is officially registered in Austria. The constitutional lawyer Prof. Bruenner, who has accompanied the procedure of the petition, appreciates the recognition of the UC by the government. “This is a sign of a pluralistic state under the rule of law. One of the most essential rights in a functioning democracy, namely the right to the freedom of religion, has hereby been granted“, Prof. Bruenner explained.
The alleged “threat of public security and order” through the teachings and practices of the UC – as it has often been purported by so-called cult experts – has been exposed by sociologists and scholars of religion as myth already in the early 1980s. Such prejudiced attributions have now been rebutted also on the part of the Austrian Federal Government.
Milestones of the UC’s legal status in Austria
Since May 1965 the Korean new religious movement has been active in Austria. The Unification Church was legally registered as the „Society for the Unification of World Christianity“ in April 1966 in Vienna. Especially young people of the middle class were attracted to the community, as they found it to offer an inspiring worldview and idealistic initiatives, the church’s officials assert. In January 1974 the legal status of the growing community was suspended through the Security Agency of Vienna, allegedly due to “formal reasons”. A renewed formation of an association was prohibited. However, despite the ongoing administrative and public discrimination the young movement continued its activities. In the years to follow the criminal investigation department and tax officers repeatedly executed raids on the sites of the religious group. The state intended to intimidate the members of the UC and to interrupt their activities.
Appeals against the repeated interdiction to register an association under the name „Association for the Promotion of the Unification Church“ raised against the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, turned out to be futile despite several attempts. In April 1975 a face-to-face visit of their representatives with then Federal President Kirchschlaeger remained without impact. Moreover, then Federal Minister of Internal Affairs, Otto Roesch, has been personally involved with the administrative reprisals against the Austrian UC. The daughter of a befriended official in Graz joined the religious group in the early 1970s and thus the wholesale tracking of the UC was ordered by state authorities.
The discrimination on the part of the Austrian authorities in the 1970s however did not inhibit the mission activities of the UC in Austria: The church claims to have sent twenty missionaries into countries of the Communist Eastern bloc during the Cold War at the outset of the 1980s. Furthermore, several hundred Austrian members are reported to have been sent out for missionary work to Germany, Britain and the United States. Due to its seeming strategic significance for the worldwide organization, the history of the UC in Austria has become a topic of research in a long-term study by local scholars of religion (see reference below).
The current head of the international religious movement is Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, the wife of its departed founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the European UC she visited Vienna, Austria’s capital city, on the 10th of May. The following day Dr. Moon spoke in the Vienna International Centre at the United Nations’ 70th anniversary on the importance of resolving the tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Religious Caste System?
The constitutional lawyer Heinz Mayer indicated that Austria’s current legislation on religion ought to be classified as unconstitutional. In order to receive full state recognition, the UC would need to prove a membership of 16,000 according to a law that came into effect in 1998. However, in fact only six of in total 17 legally registered religious communities fulfill this requirement. The principle of equal treatment seems to make a convulsive prostration in front of Austria’s “religious caste system”.
Officials of the Austrian UC state that the registration of their church as a confessional community is only a preliminary step on the way to full state recognition.
- Analysis of the administrative liquidation of the UC in 1974: G. Höfinger, Weisung von Oben. Vienna 1976. URL: http://www.vereinigungskirche.at/kirche/weisung_von_oben.htm.
- Research study on the history of the UC in Austria (1965-1966): Lukas Pokorny / Simon Steinbeiß, ‚To Restore This Nation‘. The Unification Movement in Austria. Background and Early Year. In: Hödl / L. Pokorny, Religion in Austria (Bd. 1). Vienna 2012.
- Research study on the history of the UC in Austria (1966-1969): Lukas Pokorny / Simon Steinbeiss, ‘Pioneers of the Heavenly Kingdom’: The Austrian Unification Movement, 1966–1969. In: G. Hödl / L. Pokorny, Religion in Austria (Bd. 2). Vienna 2014.
- A sociological analysis debunking the media myth of “brainwashing”: Eileen Barker, The Making of a Moonie (1984).
- Website of the Austrian Family Federation for World Peace: http://www.famfed.org/.
- Michael Breen (The Korea Times): How society handled Moon Sun-myung (2012-09-03).